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Film review – ‘On Chesil Beach’

It’s ‘Islington supper club fiction’ – Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Martin Amis. Those literary giants gifted with the ability to be noticeably highbrow while also distinctly trashy. Prose slick and slippery enough it can be consumed while your little darlings are wreaking havoc around you in your open plan poggenpohl kitchen. But layers of plot complex enough to cultivate conversations at North London dinner parties. Perhaps it’s this duality, this ability to be James Joyce and EL James (ok maybe not quite that far) that sets traps for those trying to bring the books to the big and small screen. With the possible exception of Atonement, none of the screen adaptations of these titans of fiction’s work has quite hit the mark. The BBC’s 2010 attempt at Amis’ 80s classic Money totally missed the point. While the big screen versions of McEwan’s Enduring Love and Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending took what were intricate and finely crafted masterpieces, rounded off the edges, applied a thick coat of cheap gloss and turned them out as tacky carbon copies of what they once were.

Dominic Cooke’s On Chesil Beach, doesn’t plumb these depths – helped in part by a screenplay written by Ian McEwan himself – but it gets dangerously close. It’s not flippancy to say from the first second of the film I was somewhat disappointed. On Chesil Beach is a book drenched in sadness. I had expected an onslaught of bleak, not an opening scene with a jaunty rock and roll soundtrack. Fortunately the music soon improves. Tense concertos and soaring crescendos are used to stitch together flashbacks and accompany awkward bedroom encounters. Encounters executed by Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle with the perfect amount of carnal desperation mixed with almost-slapstick humour. We join the newlyweds, Florence and Edward, on their honeymoon in a 1960s Dorset hotel. As they prepare to consummate their marriage, it soon becomes clear that both are in uncharted waters.

The book this is not. McEwan has elaborated the characters and expanded their back-story. This is perhaps inevitable, given the task of turning a 166 page novella into an almost two hour long film. A complex weave of flashbacks add depth but in places disrupt the flow of the main plot, giving the film a disjointed feel in places. We learn of parental illness for Edward and possible childhood abuse for Florence. We also track the couple’s relationship from the moment they meet – as perfect a portrayal of love at first sight as I’ve ever seen. More disappointing are the couple’s lovey dovey saccharine jaunts to the cricket pitch and concert hall – more Ryan Reynolds than Romeo. But it all gets a lot more Rom-Com when we find out these scenes are there to tee up a new and altogether more Hollywood ending. This new finale gives the film a sense of closure and circularity. But in doing so hugely cheapens it and kills off the complex sense of tragedy and unknowing achieved by the book. All of this is not helped by two of the worst sets of facial prosthetics I have ever seen in any film, past or present. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the film. It’s planning and execution is leagues above last year’s adaptation of Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. The acting is solid and the production is slick. The messages about time, relationships and sex are still there. But, well, it’s just not the novel.

So why are we filing this film, like many before it, under the category of ‘the book is better’? Format has to be part of the answer. Novels can layer up experiences, jumping between locations and years far more easily than film and TV can. Genres, or perhaps in this case ‘classes’ (highbrow vs. trashy), can be welded together in books in a way they can’t in film. When the characters, the setting and the action are all in your head you can edit in the trashiness and dilute down the highbrow to your taste. Books are more flexible precisely because they are more subjective. Film requires you to buy into a more specific interpretation. But it’s inevitable this means losing some of the ambiguity that gives many novels their appeal in the first place. Film-makers are required to pay their money and take their choice – uplifting or downbeat? Stylised or rustic? Trashy or highbrow? Authors like Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Martin Amis are great because they can skirt between these dual aspects. Partly because of the canvas they work on, partly because of their skills as story-tellers and partly because of their preparedness to trust the reader to take from the book what they will. Film makers don’t have as much artistic leeway to grant the viewer this trust. Mix that with pressure to appeal to big numbers and put bums on seats and it’s hardly surprising they often err on the side of trashy.

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History according to Ken

Where is the veteran left-winger getting his information on Hitler and Zionism from? And how much truth is there in his claims?

Over the last week, former London mayor Ken Livingstone has again been making a number of eye-catching claims of “real collaboration” between the Nazi government and Jewish groups in the 1930s.

He repeated his claim that Hitler had supported Zionism; the belief in the establishment of a Jewish state.

But he also went further, saying the Nazi paramilitary group the SS had set up training camps to help Jews move to Palestine and that Hitler’s government has passed a law allowing “the Zionist flag” to be flown in Germany.

Asked where the evidence was for this, Mr Livingstone cited a 1978 Chicago University paper by an academic whose name “begins with N”.

That academic is Professor Francis R. Nicosia, a historian who has authored and edited several books on Zionism, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.

So what exactly does Professor Nicosia say?

‘Hitler supported Zionism’

On the question of whether Hitler supported Zionism, Professor Nicosia wrote in his Chicago University paper that in the 1920s there was “some evidence that Hitler… was prepared to encourage Zionist emigration from Germany to Palestine”.

But speaking today, he says this was not a “sympathy or support for Zionism as such”.

“The Hitler regime saw Zionism and its movements and organizations as useful mechanisms for facilitating the removal of Jews from Greater Germany and Europe,” he said.

Or as Holocaust historian Professor Dan Stone puts it, “if you believe Jews represent a threat to the Aryan race and that they run the world, then that’s not really compatible with believing they should have their own state”.

‘SS training camps’

Professor Nicosia and the website Jewish Gen both refer to training programmes and centres to help German Jews obtains skills before moving to Palestine.

But neither claims the SS set up these camps, as Ken Livingstone suggests.

Rather, both say they were run by German Zionist organisations and allowed to operate by the SS – as they helped facilitate the movement of Jews out of Germany.

Professor Nicosia says that while these centres were allowed to operate, there was a ban on “Jewish meetings of a political nature”.

‘The Zionist flag’

Ken Livingstone’s claim that Nazi Germany passed a law allowing the “Zionist flag” to be flown also has some basis in reality.

The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 permitted Jews to display “the Jewish colours” but banned them from displaying the Swastika or the German national colours.

Professor Dan Stone says any suggestion that the Nuremberg laws put the Jewish flag and the Swastika on an equal footing is false.

“The laws did not mandate that the swastika and the ‘Zionist flag’ were the only flags that could be flown in Germany”, he says. 

‘Partial truths’

Throughout the last week Ken Livingstone has stood by his remarks on Hitler and Zionism, pointing those with questions to the work of Professor Francis R. Nicosia.

Today, Professor Nicosia has said that while Hitler and the Nazis “encouraged the Zionist movement in Germany” they were not supporters of the Zionist cause.

“For Nazis, as for anti-Semites in general, there was no such thing as ‘good Jews’ but there were ‘useful Jews’”, he says.

Professor Dan Stone calls claims of ‘real collaboration’ between the Nazis and Zionists “a misunderstanding of the nature of the situation”.

“Human life involves shades of grey, there were always very small numbers of Jews who collaborated with the Nazis in order to try and save their own skins. Usually to no avail,” he says.

Israeli historian Professor Yehuda Bauer sums up the row by saying “much of what Livingstone says is true, but at the same time distorted”.

“Partial truths are more dangerous than outright lies!” he says.

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Portsmouth ‘takes more asylum seekers than other cities’

A “disproportionate number” of asylum seekers are being housed in Portsmouth compared to more expensive towns and cities, a leaked report claims.

From April to June 2015, 124 asylum seekers were housed in Portsmouth – 43% of the south east total.

But areas in the south of England, including Winchester, Chichester, Guildford, Bournemouth and Havant, took no asylum seekers in this quarter.

Portsmouth council has asked the Home Office to look at the situation.

In the leaked document, the authority said it had taken a “disproportionate number” of asylum seekers, and any more would “increase pressure” on local services.

The Home Office said it worked with local authorities to monitor closely the impact of housing asylum seekers.

‘Cheaper accommodation’

Portsmouth is a designated cluster area where asylum seekers are housed by a private company contracted by the Home Office.

Southampton, another cluster area, had 61 asylum seekers in dispersed accommodation.

The leaked report said there had been: “a reluctance to open up new cluster areas in the south, possibly due to cheaper accommodation available in Portsmouth.”

Councillor Donna Jones, leader of Portsmouth City Council, said, “Portsmouth really has stepped up to the plate over the last ten years.

“We’re doing our bit, we have done our bit. But we have massive housing waiting lists.”

Asylum seekers are dispersed to and housed in Portsmouth by the company Clearsprings, which is contracted by the Home Office.

A spokesperson for the Home Office said: “Agreements between the Government and participating local authorities are voluntary.

“We review these arrangements regularly and all asylum intake has to be approved by the local authority involved.

“We work closely with local authorities to ensure that the impact of asylum dispersals are considered and acted upon.”

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Analysis

Rob Powell, BBC South Today

The question of where to house refugees is being asked at every level.

National government debates how people should be divided up between countries. Local government debates how they should be divided up between regions.

When compared to other parts of the south east, Portsmouth does take a large number of asylum seekers. But when you look at country-wide figures, a different picture emerges.

Between April and June this year 124 asylum seekers were placed in dispersed accommodation in Portsmouth. The same figure for Liverpool was more than ten times larger at 1,369. Rochdale had 956. Manchester had 786.

The regional differences are even bigger: 289 asylum seekers in the whole of the South East, 7,009 in the North West and 2,646 in the North East. Cost and availability of housing are seen as the drivers for these disparities.

Experts in refugee accommodation say the dispersal programme was first set up to ease the pressure on London and the South-East – traditionally the entry region to the UK for most asylum seekers.

But with asylum seeker dispersals in the north far outnumbering the south, that aim now looks to have come full circle.

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